Review: If I Survive You by Jonathan Escoffery
The Booker shortlisted novel examines the complicated idea of home and how institutionalised racism coexists with the idea of the American dream
Many authors are now turning to interlinked works of short fiction to articulate different kinds of migrant and refugee experiences. Gurnaik Johal’s We Move, Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s Manchester Happened, and Sarvat Hasin’s You Can’t Go Home Again all present interlinked short fiction largely centred on a set of characters who trace their ethnic origins to the Global South even as they find a sense of belonging in the Western nations where they live. What stands out is how each of these authors navigates through and responds to Eurocentric terms like “globalisation”, “cosmopolitanism” and “transnational identities”. Perhaps these interlinked short stories with each narrative taking on different voices reflect the fragmented nature of the identities of the authors themselves and their characters too. Jonathan Escoffery’s Booker longlisted If I Survive You also belongs to this literary category with each story connected to the other and all the recurring characters belonging to or somehow associated with a single family unit.
Topper and Sanya have fled violence in Jamaica to build a life in the United States. The short narratives in the collection present episodes from the lives of their sons Delano and Trelawny and the people who make up their world. The idea of constant movement, an abiding characteristic of the migrant condition, appears in the title of the very first story, In Flux. This then sets the tone for the book as a whole. One of the stand-out pieces is Independent Living which provides an almost ethnographic survey of Miami: multi-ethnic hostesses outside eateries display “phenotypes that, according to American media outlets, should not coexist” and linguistic diversity is evident in how “French and Arabic and Japanese join Spanish and the myriad variations of English spoken in the crowd”.
The book examines the complicated idea of home and whether a return to the homeland is possible while also looking at the varied ways in which institutionalised racism continues to coexist with the idea of the American dream. In Independent Living, when Sanya decides to return to Jamaica, her son points out that the difference between him and his parents “is that my parents have a homeland to which they can return”. That observation turns out to be a fallacy. Sanya returns to the West in the final story stating, “Sometimes you just aren’t one of your people anymore”.
Author Wai Chee Dimock once asked: “What does it mean to refer to a body of writing as American?” She was questioning the appropriateness of defining the literary academic discipline in only territorially marked terms. In the contemporary age of mass migration and mass displacement, authors like Escoffery offer up a picture of the US that doesn’t necessarily coincide with the popular perception of the West or even of how it presents itself to the rest of the world.
What stands out about If I Survive You is that it depicts how cultural shifts continue to shape the Global North, and it does so in a way that is rare in the mainstream media narratives emerging from that region.
Simar Bhasin is an independent journalist.